Understanding Historical (Im)Politeness
  • ISSN 1566-5852
  • E-ISSN: 1569-9854
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The central argument of this paper is that “politeness”, when looked at not as a theoretical term but as a lexeme in the English language, has a relatively unstable set of cognitive concepts for which it prompts when used. The first-order notion of “politeness” developed by Watts, Ide and Ehlich (1992a), Watts (2003, 2005) and Locher (2004) entails the need for a very different form of theorisation from the rationalist/objectivist approach presented in Brown and Levinson ([1978] 1987). The only way to develop such a new “theory” of first-order “politeness” is to take positively and negatively evaluated linguistic expressions referring to the general area of “politeness” (polite, polished, refined, well-mannered, standoffish, etc.) to prompt for the socio-cognitive construction of a range of meanings that do not always correspond to one another or even overlap, i.e. to develop a socio-cognitive constructionist approach to emergent social practice. In terms of looking at “politeness” from a historical point of view, it is obviously difficult if not impossible to reconstruct the forms of emergent social practice, but English writings during the early eighteenth century are replete with references to terms such as polite, polished, affected, politeness, etc. The close study of how such terms are used reveals that what was understood by them was very different from what politeness researchers of today understand by “politeness”, and such differences can only be accounted for by positing a relativist model that can account for variability and change.


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